Are You Using Paralegals Effectively?
Joel A. Herman
Sometimes, attorneys do work that can be accomplished effectively and efficiently by paralegals. This can create a culture of staff members performing tasks for which they are overqualified, which can reduce the firm’s profitability. This blog highlights some considerations to address such concerns.
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Determine the scope of responsibility
The National Association of Legal Assistants emphasizes that paralegals “have knowledge and expertise regarding the legal system and substantive and procedural law which qualify them to do work of a legal nature under the supervision of an attorney.” Generally, paralegals spend some time performing clerical work on a weekly basis, and many regularly communicate directly with clients via email and written letters. Although drafting basic court filings and contracts is a traditional paralegal duty, paralegals are also increasingly managing their firms’ technology applications, handling administrative functions and engaging in marketing and business development activities.
The roles and responsibilities of paralegals and legal assistants can differ widely by firm. These employees ideally should spend minimal time performing clerical or other work suited to legal secretaries and administrative staff who are generally at lower pay scales. Conversely, paralegals should not do work that is best handled by lawyers. Only attorneys can provide legal advice to clients, represent them in court, plan legal strategies, take depositions, set fees or accept engagements. Competent paralegals free up partners and associates to do more complex, higher billing-rate work.
How your firm uses paralegals may depend on the type of individuals that you hire. Although some firms require paralegals to have formal legal assistant education or certification, others hire college graduates with little or no previous experience and train them on the job. Some recent graduates may be considering law school themselves.
Perform a profitability analysis
Consider performing an analysis that allocates expenses (such as salary and benefits) to partners, associates and paralegals. Then, calculate revenues for each of these groups. When you compare revenues with costs (incorporating such factors as utilization and realization), you may be surprised to find that paralegals are your firm’s profit center. Setting paralegals’ billing rates based on experience often means that senior paralegals offer the best profit margins.
Although paralegals can be profitable if your firm charges hourly rates, the greatest financial potential of paralegal work typically comes in fixed and contingency cases. Enlarging paralegals’ roles helps reduce your firm’s investment in those engagements and free up associates to work on other matters.
Related Read: Paralegals May Hold the Key to Profitability
Keep paralegals engaged
Because senior paralegals often are the most profitable staff members, continue to look for ways to retain them and help them grow. This can include:
Provide career path and professional development opportunities, such as continuing education, mentoring and training and management roles.
Participation in Decision Making
Treat paralegals as knowledgeable team members by allowing them to contribute to practice group decisions and participate in client meetings.
Provide a mechanism for paralegals to provide feedback or voice concerns about the attorneys with whom they work and how cases are managed.
Consider designating a paralegal coordinator, such as a senior paralegal or partner who understands the value that paralegals bring to the firm and its clients. The coordinator can be responsible for hiring, training and optimizing paralegal resources. This coordinator could assign staff to matters that make the best use of their experience and skills.
Effective use of paralegals is a win-win for everyone. It creates a fulfilling work environment for paralegals. Plus, your firm’s bottom line will improve if work is delegated to the appropriate levels of people. Year end is a good time to reflect on your workflow patterns and make improvements that promote job satisfaction, productivity and profitability.
Related Read: How Law Firms Can Move Forward Profitably
For more information, contact Joel Herman at [email protected] or 312.670.7444. Visit ORBA.com to learn more about our Law Firm Group.